Addicted to the Artificial

Photo by David Khorassani.

How much do you really know about your smartphone?

British watchdog “Which?” found in a 2013 study that smartphones could have around 20 times as much bacteria on them as your average toilet seat. This year alone, 12 people have died because they were taking selfies, most cases resulting in them falling to their death, according to a Mashable report. For comparison’s sake, only eight people have been killed this year by shark attacks.

Does this mean that using a smartphone is more dangerous than swimming with sharks? Maybe not, but studies like these show us that we have become completely addicted to our smartphones, a recent phenomenon that journalism professor Howard Good says is making us less productive, less creative and socially inept.

Good teaches a class called “Being Digital,” which tackles the topic of modern technology and how it affects society. He said our attachment to our smartphones is comparable to hardcore drug addiction.

“It seems to be as hard for people to put aside their phones, even when they’re in the presence of real human beings, as it is for drug addicts to put away the needle,” Good said.

Smartphone use is at an all-time high. A 2014 Pew Research poll found that 64 percent of Americans own a smartphone, up from 35 percent in 2011. In a random survey of 25 SUNY New Paltz students, all 25 said they currently own a smartphone.

So, are we actually addicted?

A 2014 report from Informate Mobile Intelligence Pvt. Ltd., a research firm that measures consumer activity on smartphones and tablets, stated that U.S. smartphone users spend an average of 4.7 hours a day on their smartphones. Although only nine of the 25 New Paltz students surveyed said they were addicted to their smartphones, 19 said they spend more than four hours a day on their phones.

Good said our addiction to smartphones is more or less our addiction to what smartphones can actually do. Modern smartphones can access nearly every facet of the digital world.

“When we’re talking about a phone, we’re not really talking about a phone in the traditional sense,” Good said. “We’re talking about a device that allows you to access everything from the latest political news, to pornography to the latest Netflix series. It’s not just a phone that has one function. It’s a multipurpose handheld device, which makes it increasingly indispensable for most people. If it had only one function then when that function is over people could put it away. People use it for so many things that it becomes ever present.”

In nearly 40 years of teaching, Good said he has never seen students more disengaged than in recent years.

“Despite the availability of infinite information, students seem more misinformed in class than ever,” he said. “And that’s about what’s happening in current events and just general knowledge. That makes me think that they’ve come to depend on the Internet and their smartphones as their memory. They don’t bother to absorb knowledge and information for themselves, they lay it off on the machinery. The result is that they kind of don’t know anything. It’s difficult to make anything understood because they don’t have a lot of context.”

Good also noted that students find it more difficult to focus in class and more students feel the need to leave the classroom at some point during a normal class period. A 2015 Canadian survey with 2,000 participants found that the average attention span of humans is now around eight seconds, down from 12 seconds 15 years ago, before the dawn of the mobile revolution. The attention span of an average goldfish is believed to be around nine seconds.

The abundance of information and entertainment on smartphones combined with their exceptional accessibility means that we are much more likely to multitask than ever before. Twenty-three of the 25 New Paltz students surveyed said they regularly use their phones to multitask.

But nearly all research studies say the same thing about multitasking: it doesn’t work. A study at the University of London found that participants who multitasked during cognitive tasks had their IQ scores drop similarly to if they had smoked marijuana or stayed up all night.

“If your attention is always getting pulled at 10 directions at once, then you’re never going to really be able to think something through,” Good said.

A study at the London School of Economics found that following a ban on phone use, the school’s’ test scores improved by 6.4 percent. Underachieving students saw their grades rise by 14 percent. The study pointed to the distracting nature of smartphones getting in the way of student’s studies and ability to learn.

Children are getting access to smartphones and other digital devices at earlier ages every year. A 2013 survey by Common Sense Media found that 38 percent of children under the age of two had used a mobile device, despite warnings from pediatric experts that children under 2 should not use screens at all.

“Go to a diner and you’ll see a young couple with a kid who is totally immersed by technology and not talking to his or her parents,” Good said. “They don’t learn social skills. It doesn’t develop cognitively because they’re not looking at someone to learn what different facial expressions mean, what different nonverbal cues and hand gestures mean.”

According to Good, while kids addicted to technology don’t learn social skills, adults under the influence are quickly losing them.

“I think people have substituted social media for real life social interactions,” Good said. “They’ve kind of lost the ability to behave appropriately in the social sphere, public places.”

A 2015 comScore report said that Mobile devices account for 76 percent of all time spent on social media in the U.S. Of the 25 New Paltz students surveyed, 24 said they use their phones to access social media platforms. Twenty said that social media serves as a major distraction on a day-to-day basis.

All of the research suggests that heavy smartphone usage makes us less intelligent and less productive, and most of us recognize this. So why can’t we break free of this addiction? Good said that ideology spread by popular culture, advertisements and the media encourages the digital addiction.

“I think sometimes people do realize they’re on their cellphones for an inordinate amount of time, but they’re also helpless to put them down or look away,” Good said. “I just want people to be skeptical. Really look at what these devices do to you and think about why you’re not being told about their many problems.”

According to Good, the idea is not to entirely avoid technology and your smartphones, because that simply isn’t possible for most of us at this time. But he does believe that people need to find a way to break free from their digital addiction to give themselves personal time, and every study backs him up, showing that our brains perform better when we disconnect.

“I think people should just slow down, focus on something,” Good said. “I worry that there’s no space for dreaming left, and how important that is for mental health and constructive thought, creative expression, inventiveness.”

So where is this going? Smartphones have made us much more reliant on technology than ever in just a few years.

“What we see over and over again is the technology companies looking for new activities and new living spaces to colonize,” Good said. “We’re very likely to see the ‘Internet of things,’ where our appliances, our toasters, our refrigerators, our washing machines, the heat and air conditioning will become more like our cars, where they sense us and adjust accordingly.”

Good speaks of a future where we are heavily reliant on technology and the digital world, and as a result, inherently less human. But who’s to say that this future isn’t already here?